Hnefatafl: the Game of the Vikings

Thoughts on Elite Guards

Facsimile of the diagram from the Corpus Christi manuscript.
Facsimile of the diagram from the Corpus Christi manuscript.

Tuesday, 23rd July 2013

I've been looking at the alea evangelii board again, after having seen it featured an old BBC programme on board games (Episode 1 of Games Britannia). A new, possibly significant idea has just come to me.

You may see some rules on alea evangelii elsewhere, that feature some "elite guards", usually all stood beside the king, who have some increased power. Maybe they're invincible, or have some extra power of movement. These seem to have come about after somebody read about the "variegated men" on the mediaeval alea evangelii diagram, somebody who didn't have that diagram in front of them to see where the variegated men really are. You can see them clearly in the original diagram: in the middle of the diagonal rows of five pieces.

In my own research I've settled for now on the conclusion that the men sat on decorated spaces, which mark points that help in setting up the pieces. Another theory is that those pieces were defenders, contrasting with what are assumed to be attackers beside them.

But I've just noticed something else about their position (best seen on the reconstructed diagram shown with the alea evangelii rules, rather than the original shown here). Most of the central ring of attacking pieces is weakly pinned into position: if one should move, it opens another escape route for the defenders.

But not the "variegated men", the ones in the middle of those diagonal lines of five. If one of those moves, none of the inner defenders is in a position to take advantage of the opening. And once a variegated man has moved, the gap can be easily plugged on the next turn by pieces outside the ring, many being lined up for the purpose. This gives them some strategic significance.

This may not have any bearing on why the pieces were specially marked in the mediaeval diagram. For now I'll continue in the belief that the markings were probably there to help set out the complicated arrangement of pieces. But it gives food for thought in constructing the game, and for thinking of strategies in playing it.


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